The fabric of Chongming cultural heritage is homespun

For Chongming women, homespun fabric is more than just the stuff of making clothes. It also serves as a dowry, a diary and a history.

Filmed by Zhou Shengjie. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Translated by Wang Xinzhou. Polished by Andy Boreham.

Homespun fabric is more than just the stuff of making clothes on the island of Chongming. For women there, the cloth threads through their community life, serving as dowries, diaries and even family histories. 

Chongming homespun can be traced back to the late Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) or early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). During the reign of the Ming Emperor Jiajing, the wife of the local Chongming magistrate, who came from southern China, taught locals the advanced spinning skills of her hometown. 

After that, the textile industry flourished on the island through to modern times, when factory-made cloth supplanted homemade fabric. 

He Yongdi, 49, is a native of Chongming. Known as “homespun addict,” she has collected homespun over almost two decades, amassing 25 tons in 578 different varieties and more than 4,000 patterns. 

“My love for homespun is partly associated with my love of colors,” she explained. “I collected crayons when I was a child, and I used to spend more time contemplating color schemes for a piece of cloth than doing homework.” 

She may well be the last generation making Chongming homespun. 

It’s a skill she learned as a child from her mother. She made her first homespun cloth when she was 11 and began to collect the cloths for her own dowry long before she knew a Mr Right might appear in her life. 

“I still remember my mother weaving cloth on a loom while I was doing homework beside her,” He said, with a glisten of tears in her eyes. “Being with her made me feel safe and at ease.” 

She remembers the era when the marriage of a Chongming daughter required parents to provide at least 18 bolts of homespun in a dowry. It had to contain three essential patterns. One bore the character jing (井), an abbreviation of the idiom jing jing you tiao, which described parental expectations that a daughter would be tidy and orderly. 

A second pattern of plum blossoms signified independence and strength. 

The third pattern, chenxin, which resembles a Chinese weight scale, symbolized satisfaction. 

“The homespun embedded parents’ love for their children,” said He. “It doesn’t compare with the material wealth of today’s weddings, but it does excel in craftsmanship.” 

The dowry homespun was a sign to the groom’s family that a son wasn’t marrying just a pretty face, but rather, a woman who had weaving skills.

The fabric of Chongming cultural heritage is homespun
Zhou Shengjie

Jing-patterned Chongming homespun, used as dowry, symbolizes everything in perfect order.

The fabric of Chongming cultural heritage is homespun
Zhou Shengjie

Piles of Chongming homespun are stored in He’s three-story house.

Homespun also symbolized a Chongming woman’s housekeeping abilities. 

“My friend and I always visited brides’ families stealthily on wedding days to see what homespun they were giving as dowry,” He said. “If we liked a design, we even cut off a small piece. Returning home, we would think about how to improve it in color, size and design. At heart, every Chongming woman is an independent designer who draws inspiration from life.” 

A meteor pattern was popular in the 1970s. 

Chongming women wished for health, prosperity and good weather through the “longstanding meteor shower” on the homespun. 

The everyday sights of life — begonias, osmanthus, butterflies, ants, lanterns, balls and reeds — also evolved into patterns on the fabrics. 

One of He’s favorite Chongming homespun cloths from the 1970s features several Chinese words, translated as “double happiness,” “youth,” “Beijing,” “doing morning chores,” “Wang Dachun,” “Wang Meili” and “October 2.” 

The references relate to a local weaver named Wang Meili, who worked in Beijing when she was young and met a man named Wang Dachun on October 2. They later wed. 

“I collected this piece from Wang Meili,” said He. “Her children didn’t care for Chongming homespun, so she gave it to me after I paid several visits to her home. This is an example of Chongming women using cloth to tell life stories because paper is so fragile and can be easily lost or damaged.”

Unique patterns with distinctive features record different periods. 

Homespun, in essence, becomes a family history that an older generation can pass down to younger family members. 

For example, model operas, an art form that flourished during the cultural revolution, is reflected in Chongming homespun woven between the 1960s and 1970s. 

Some homespun of that time also contains Chinese characters that refer to the “revolutionary cause,” “industry” and “working together.” 

“My mother always told me that I could make the most beautiful homespun,” said He. 

She went beyond that to promote and perpetuate the cultural heritage of Chongming homespun by creating a studio in 2017 where the artform can be practiced and exhibited. 

The fabric of Chongming cultural heritage is homespun
Zhou Shengjie

He Yongdi has collected 25 tons of Chongming homespun and established a studio to perpetuate the traditional folk art.

The fabric of Chongming cultural heritage is homespun
Zhou Shengjie

Dyed Chongming homespun is dried outdoors.

“I don’t refer to it as a museum because museums conjure up the idea of a dead art, whereas of Chongming homespun is alive,” she said. 

“My intention in founding this site is to pass on the craftsmanship and its meaning for the mothers and daughters of the island.” 

She invites the elderly women in her village to weave cloth in her studio, encouraging them to create new patterns. The weavers range in age from 60 to 80, and when working together, they are like gleeful children. 

He grows a variety of plants she uses to extract natural dyes. 

Light green dye comes from kiwi fruit. Gray comes from loquat. Persimmon produces brown, while tomatoes yield pink. She even grows gossypium, a flowering plant from which cotton is harvested. 

“I want to show children how clothes are made and the work that goes into them,” said He. 

The three major processes in homespun are hand-spinning cotton thread, dyeing yarn and weaving cloth. 

Broken into their component parts, they require more than 30 steps.

The fabric of Chongming cultural heritage is homespun
Zhou Shengjie

Indigo juice is extracted from dyer’s woad, a plant growing in He’s garden.

The fabric of Chongming cultural heritage is homespun
Zhou Shengjie

Local elderly women weave Chongming homespun on an old loom in He’s studio.

The first Chongming homespun He ever collected is one featuring Pixiu, a Chinese mythical creature considered a powerful protector of practitioners of feng shui. She first saw the elaborate cloth on her way home one day, when she spotted an elderly woman wearing slippers of the cloth. 

“In the first 15 years of my collecting experience, I focused on copying the old patterns and promoting Chongming homespun,” she said. “Now, I am back to that point again, concentrating on designing the homespun of a particular era.” 

She calls one of her own homespun patterns “lady.” 

Seen from afar, the fabric looks black and white, but on closer inspection, it shows weaving of nine-colored threads, including black, white, blue, green, purple, yellow, orange and pink. The pattern symbolizes a lady who is humble, low-key and knowledgeable. 

Cooperating with designers, He utilizes Chongming homespun to create products such as handbags, notebooks, toys, stools curtains, duvet covers, wallets and fashionable clothing. They have been well-received by domestic and overseas customers. 

He said she plans to open a Chongming homespun library, the first of its kind in China. 

There, she will archive information about every homespun, including pattern, era, craftsmanship and stories behind each piece of cloth. 

“I already have a huge collection of Chongming homespun, but I won’t stop collecting,” she said. “Perhaps there is a piece somewhere that I have never seen and is waiting to be discovered.”

The fabric of Chongming cultural heritage is homespun
Zhou Shengjie

Chongming homespun is used to make trendy handbags.

If you go: 

Address: 493 Yongchun Village, Xianghua Town, Chongming District 

Tel: 139-1692-9638 

How to get there: Take Metro Line 6 to the Wuzhoudadao Station and get out at Exit 2. Take Shenchong Bus No.2 to the Chenjia Town stop, then take the Baochen Bus to the Mixinqiao stop. 

Tip: Appointments are required.

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